Very thankful and excited as well for the big professional news of the season on my end—after thirteen years as a teacher in various roles, from teacher-counselor to classroom teacher to teacher-on-assignment in a coaching/support role, I’ve started up this year as the new acting BPS Senior Program Director for History/Social Studies.

I think it’ll still take a while for that one to sink in—especially if I look at it as I’ve done recently, to be in a position responsible for directing and managing social studies/history education in the public schools of one of the country’s most historic cities.  Humbling and energizing at the same time.

As I’ve thought it through to myself and described it to others, it also feels like a shift in identity, having been deeply invested in teacher leadership work in the local union and through other local and national teacher networks for so long.  And now?  Having to transition out of the role.  Sad in terms of not being able to cleanly belong to the realm of classroom teaching any more (at least for the time being), but I also know that  largely focusing on supporting and developing teachers as professionals will continue to motivate my own daily work.

Onward to good things!

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Happy summer, everyone.  Like you, I’m thankful for the down time—or at least the opportunity to do all the things I’ve been putting off—over the past few weeks.  In that time, I’m pleased to have finally transcribed and condensed an interview from late May with Ross Wilson, the assistant superintendent largely in charge of the district’s professional development, principal support and the new performance evaluation system.

As you may already know or will soon read here, there are significant shifts in the way we do our professional work as educators on the horizon.  A new district-wide performance evaluation system and associated professional development offerings will be in place.  We will all, not just ELA and math teachers, carry the responsibility to modify and enhance our curricula and instructional strategies to embrace the Common Core state standards.

What are we as teachers to do with these shifts?  Where can we continue or even begin to understand these changes?  No matter what your level of familiarity is, I hope this interview serves to move us all along.

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Ross Wilson Reflects

Ross Wilson Reflects

Background to Ross and the Office of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness.

Who are you, Ross?  What is your current position and what are your responsibilities in the Boston Public Schools?

Currently, my title is Assistant Superintendent of Teacher and Leadership Effectiveness.  We’ve been messing around with the idea of saying Educator Effectiveness.  We like to use the word ‘educator’ because it’s all encompassing of everybody in our organization and we’re all learners.  We all contribute to student learning in different ways, and I feel we all have a lot of the same desires and goals.

My job is essentially is composed of three major buckets of work.  One is working with the Office of Teacher Development and Advancement.  We work really hard to think about supporting new teachers [and] quality professional development for all teachers.  Another is around school leadership where we work hard to think about better ways to support school leaders, principal induction support and mentoring.  Lastly, our work is around performance evaluation.  So that’s looking at the new performance regulations and implementing them responsibly.  You can see this alignment between these three major buckets of work.  There’s [the process of] induction and support of both teachers and school leaders, thinking of professional development and then performance evaluation; these things are all symbiotic.  They come together really well.

Can you describe your path to this current position?

I started my career in Shrewsbury, MA as a special education teacher for 1st and 2nd grade students.  I then became a reading and curriculum specialist at that school before becoming a kindergarten and first grade teacher in BPS.  I also trained at Lesley University as a literacy coordinator as part of the Literacy Collaborative at that time so I served as their coach as well.  Then I become an assistant principal and a special coordinator at an elementary school on the North Shore.  I later returned to BPS as a principal fellow, did my internship for a year with Gloria Rose at the Mattahunt School and after that, was principal at the Haley Elementary.  I had the pilot school for five years and now I’m in this current position.

Give a picture of what you were like as a teacher.  From your perspective as a former teacher, would you say the ‘context’ of teaching has changed?  If so, in what ways?

Pretty much the same way I am now (laughing).  We did a lot of center work, a lot of work around storytelling and project-based learning.  One of my beliefs is engagement of students and connections across curriculum.  Through project based learning, students are engaged in learning across the curriculum.

When I was first a teacher, we just started with the context of MCAS testing and high stakes testing.  There was a lot of debate at that time about it.  And I think we’ve gotten past that in terms of teaching to standards and the importance of standards-based instruction.

I also hear when we talk about context a lot about curriculum programs.  Sometimes we talk a lot about this notion of ‘we have this new curriculum.’  I am a strong believer [instead], of asking ‘what is your belief around student learning and around teaching.’  I’ve used this concept as a teacher and school leader to thinking about the instructional framework you believe in.   And when you’re designing lessons or units of study for students, we have in mind about how we’re extending or applying different types of knowledge in different ways.   That’s where we see great results with great engagement and learning from students.

Lastly, I think moving from programs, like an inclusion program from a substantially separate program to being more inclusive in nature does say that every student belongs to every one of us and we all have to share responsibility for student success.  And I do believe that has changed.  In some schools in Boston we had substantially separate classes and we still do, and we have advanced work classes, and we have different ways of having children go to different programs.  And I think our focus now on inclusive practices in Boston, we think much more intentionally about how to support all students in a community of educators in a school that own every student in that building, not just the ones that are assigned to their classroom.  So I think that has changed.

What ‘subheading’ of your professional life would you say most strongly influences the way you approach your particular job and responsibilities now?  You’re a parent, you were a teacher, an assistant principal, coach, principal and now an assistant superintendent; if you had to choose just one, which would it be?

A parent.  You know I used to believe before children, I thought I had all this education and what not and you didn’t need to be a parent to be a great teacher.  I still actually believe that.  But the wisdom and perspective that you gain from being a parent is significant.  I live in Boston and I have three children one of whom is on a waiting list to get into K-1, a two year old and a seven month old.  And they’ll all be going to be the Boston Public Schools.  So everything I do, I think about them.   What teacher would I want for my children?.  I think all the time about what kind of school culture that they would flourish in… and quite honestly?  My children are very different from each other.  They each have different needs.  I expect that they will need a really good teacher with strong instructional strategies to engage them.

So I view my job in the Office of Educator Effectiveness as how to support teachers meet the needs of all students.

That makes sense to me and I’m glad to hear you say that, as a teacher. 

But that doesn’t really seem to get at the administrative role that you have in terms of creating and managing systems.  So do you feel that translates?   How does that help you create systems?

I think we learn more from having individual conversations and going to schools and talking to educators and getting their feedback than staying in this room and thinking about what systems to create.  I think whenever we think about what our policies are around performance evaluation and professional development, those are all coming from conversations with educators in Boston.  Not from ‘a book’ or thinking of a systems approach to this.  But what do we believe educators in Boston are asking for and how do we make sure we’re engaging them in a process that feels fair to them and helps them with professional growth.

There’s a human side to this work.  In fact, I believe that at least 90% of this work is about relationships we have with the children [and the ability to] problem solve and work together.  That’s the way I approach it.  I don’t approach it from this disconnected way.

Do you feel most of your colleagues at your administrative level within BPS feel the same way?  And do you feel that teachers by and large, whom you’ve talked to in the schools you’ve visited, respond to you in that way?

The people that we work with as an academic team and operations team, absolutely.  They are incredibly dedicated people, they are people that value input from all educators across our school system and do this job to serve educators in our school system and they work tirelessly to do so.  I’ve gained great admiration for the people I work with at Court St.

When I was a teacher or principal, you don’t always see Court St in the same light but when you’re here as part of the team?  I’m amazed at the people I work with and the dedication they show every day.

As for teachers, I wouldn’t expect them [to believe this stated orientation] right off the bat.  I’m the guy at this point talking a lot about evaluation stuff.  I’m not expecting that people are saying right off the bat that I trust you and believe you.  I think that’s earned over time.  But I think we remain committed and consistent with our message, our approach to this and we want to treat educators fairly in this process.  I think trust is gained and earned; it’s not granted.  Now that being said, there are I think the large majority of educators in school we’ve felt really welcomed at and honestly, quite impressed by these school cultures.  We’ve been to over sixty schools with all the educators for a couple of hours and we leave every time learning a ton and feel privileged to have entered into those schools.

Defining Leadership and Teacher Effectiveness.

How do you define teacher and leadership effectiveness?  What does that look like in your opinion?

That’s a big question.  I think the first step is to consider how to define teacher effectiveness.  In my mind, it’s a conversation that we’re having together as a school district at this time.  The state has come out with four new standards for performance evaluation along with indicators and elements that are in a rubric.  I think this is a really important time where we need to engage as a district and consider what we think effective teaching involves in Boston.

When you say ‘we’, you mean…

As a school district.  So when we go to schools, we as a team go to schools, we talk to the teachers about this rubric and we talk to teachers about the importance of unpacking the rubric and making sense of the behaviors that you would see in classrooms, the evidence that you would collect, based on different rating categories.

For instance, if you’re looking at ‘Proficient’ in this standard in this indicator in this element, this is what it says but what does that mean for us in Boston?  And we ask teachers to think about what this means for them at their school as well.  And we want those conversations happening in every school where school communities are engaged in conversation about what does this mean for us at the Carter school, the Everett or TechBoston.  Because we want a common language across our system, we believe the standards in the rubric allow that common conversation, but we also are very clear that different school communities have different contexts and sometimes serve different populations of students.  Or they may have different themes as schools.  So as a school community, they should further unpack and define what it means there.  It’s not to say that we don’t want to have a district definition.  We absolutely want to have a district starting point and common language, but we also want to be clear about different roles and responsibilities at schools and what it means for schools that serve different populations.

So you feel it’s almost like meeting in the middle.  So the district has a common language and expectation but it doesn’t really live without people engaging with it at the individual school level with the particular students that they serve and the communities that they are in.

It would be unfair of us for us to tell you what effective teaching is at your school.

What if you think it wasn’t good enough?

We would push back on it.

How?

So, it’s interesting.  We’re going out to schools and talking to teachers about the regulations.   We want every educator to understand what’s happening so they have a good sense of what’s coming in September because we have no choice regardless of negotiations.  We must implement the regulations.  And, we are engaging with school leaders in training, and teachers, at different levels.  And so all these things need to come together in order to define what this whole system is.  So to get back to your point of how do we push back if we think we’re not meeting the standard at a school, we work with school leaders and teachers to be clear about what is this means and what does this looks like.

We’ve been talking with a lot of partners to talk about how we do work around calibration, how do we do work around clearly exemplifying what the standard of teaching is in Boston.  And that could be exemplified through videos, artifacts of lesson plans or through family and community engagement.  We envision eventually having a rubric that will be a living document where you can look at proficiency at one element and click on a hyperlink that would bring you to evidence that would show you what that could look like…so we could have a common view of what we think effective teaching is or what effective community and family engagement looks like in Boston.

Can you talk a little bit about the leadership effectiveness part of it?  The principal induction?

Sure.  So the leadership effectiveness work has, and will continually be focused, on developing a knowledge base in our school leaders around some of our upcoming initiatives.  There are a number of exciting things that are happening across our school system and across our state and nation such as the Common Core standards, the better use of data to inform the instruction of students, and work around professional development and performance evaluation.  And that includes creating school cultures that can handle all of these things coming to us.

Would you feel from your estimation Ross in terms of your collective energies that you’ve equally developed the idea of teacher professional development and accountability and school leadership professional development and accountability? 

The same way that we’re focusing on the rubric for teachers is the same that we’re doing with principals and thinking about what are these new four standards and what they mean for us, what are the shifts that occur and how do we unpack them.  It’s a fascinating experience where there is a clear alignment between teachers, assistant principals and principals and superintendents.  Where the standards are aligned and they’re all intertwined.  So principals are going to be rated and evaluated and supported on how well they support teachers on their indicators and their work.  So because of this intertwining and because the process is the same for every educator in the system, it allows the same conversation to be occurring throughout the system.  The same work that we’ve been doing with school and orienting teachers is the same that we’re doing with principals.  It’s really a common ground for all of us.

I know as a Race to the Top district, BPS has received federal funds to help ‘make this happen.’  What positions, structures or common understandings are needed to create meaningful opportunities for teacher and administrative leadership?

This work that we’re doing is supported by RttT.  We’re building an online system now for all performance management and the performance evaluation work, to be online.  That includes self assessment, goal setting, and evidence collection by both the evaluator and educator to be loaded into a system.  And eventually, there will be links to professional development.  We now have the opportunity to have this historical look at people to make sure that people are receiving the appropriate observations and all the elements of performance evaluation.

We’re developing this ourselves so we own the system.  So after RttT money is gone, this system will remain in place and will continue to serve us for years to come.  So we feel really good about that investment and we feel that RttT has given us the ability to create an infrastructure that will support us.  That’s what RttT is designed to do—to develop systems and structures to help support your school district and to have some position to get the heavy lift, the work along the way, but the theory is you won’t need those once systems are in place.

New Performance Evaluation System.

Let’s talk about the new performance evaluation system that you are largely in charge of ushering in.  From my understanding, all BPS schools will be implementing this new evaluation system in the fall of 2012.

We are right on the threshold of half the schools for presentations.

After doing so many presentations at schools, what do you think is most important for teachers to know about the new system? 

What’s important to understand is that the role of the educator is much more active in this performance evaluation system than in the past.  It’s active through the self assessment process, the goal setting process and the collection of evidence for themselves on the four standards.  That’s not been in place in the past; it’s very intentional that there’s much more focus on the educator’s voice in the process.

Two, it’s the multiple sources of data to make an overall decision on a teacher’s overall performance.  You’re thinking about the four standards but you’re also thinking about the goals and the process towards reaching them and eventually, we’ll have ratings on multiple measures and student feedback.  So all of them come together to give an overall rating.

We’ve learned that it’s really important to have multiple sources of evidence to make a rating on a teacher and it’s important to have multiple visits to the classroom in order to inform an overall rating.  And it’s important to collect evidence not just through observation, but through other artifacts such as lesson plans or engagement with families, that help you understand a teacher’s overall performance and eventually to connect that to professional needs.

Another piece that’s different is this notion of cycles.  In the new performance evaluation system, everyone’s on the same cycle.  The duration of these plans are different.  It’s important to understand that the cycles are the same but the duration of the cycles are different.  And I think people need to be informed about what that means and what support they’ll get on these different plans.

What I think is really similar is the alignment of the Dimensions of Effective Teaching and the four standards.  Everything in the Dimensions fits in the four standards.  And what’s different is the rubric allows us to be more clear about what we mean by it and what it actually looks like.  The same thing for school administrators.

Are you doing work with associating the Common Core with teacher evaluation?  I know that’s a big emphasis with RttT and I haven’t heard much about it happening in our school system.

A number of key standards and elements are aligned to the shifts with the Common Core state standards.  We just last week did some work with our Curriculum and Instruction departments; we all looked at the rubrics and identified some elements that strongly aligned to the shifts and we began to do some work around some sample goals that teachers might think about in terms of a menu of goals, depending on content level and grade level, of a shift connected to the Common Core.

We’ve spent some time unpacking the rubric in this way and asking ourselves what might that look like in the classroom?  And what would the principal’s work be in supporting this work?

It’s been a really great experience and great alignment between two major initiatives that sometimes feel separate but are very much aligned to each other.  The intentional focus of using the rubric as an instructional frame and showing where the rubric reflects the other instructional priorities of the district allows us to understand how they’re all working together.

I think the notion that the Common Core will just be implemented is a false notion.  I believe that we will phase it in and learn about it together.  In fact, we’ve been learning with ourselves around this, particularly around literacy and the three different shifts there, with text complexity, non-fiction texts and close reading of text with text dependent questions.    What we’ve been learning is that it’s a shift of mindset around our standards and the instructional strategies we use.  They’re not going to be magically developed overnight but will be developed over time.  I do think we can use the rubric to help leverage that work.

What are your greatest hopes for the new evaluation system? 

I think it’s the educators feeling that they’ve gotten good, strong feedback from their evaluator but also from their reflective practice in this process.  That they feel like it’s valuable, that they’ve learned something and that they feel supported.

I’m with you on that… do you feel that needs to be measured?  Or how will that be measured?

This goes back to the question of how do you measure effective professional development.  It’s a really hard question.  And I think as a country and different district, we struggle with how do we measure the effectiveness of professional development.  So I don’t have a clear answer for it.  But I do think we need to ask people how they’re experiencing the system.  I do think we need to look at some measures that say are we seeing improvement in students’ performance.  Because ultimately, we can do a lot with adults but if we’re not seeing improved student performance, then it’s all for naught.  Ultimately, we need to see a closing of achievement gaps, which in my mind is the most important thing to see.

What is the greatest challenge to the success of the new evaluation system in BPS?

I think people have experienced performance evaluation as sometimes not being a growth process or valuable to them.  So I think we’re building on a system that some people may not feel worked well for them.  And I think if we enter this and thinking about performance evaluation as just a technical solution to a better evaluation, then we’ve missed an opportunity.  I think if we’re thinking about performance evaluation as a way to organize our academic work together and aligning professional development and insuring that we’ve improved our professional development, I think we’ll be successful.

There’s a mentality that’s really common in the public, but also in the education community, where it’s all about sifting.  ‘Let’s get the good teachers here and let’s get rid of the bad teachers.’  It’s simplistic and represents a very imprecise understanding of what the work of teaching is about.  In some ways, that’s a big fear with the new evaluation system as well, where people think based on data points I don’t fully understand or aren’t fully developed, or I may be teaching a subject that’s not oriented to a specific test, I don’t particularly trust my principal or this person is new and doesn’t understand our school culture and my fate is in the hands of an individual that may be brand new.

Do you think teachers are right to be wary or in some cases, skeptical of the changes and how the new evaluation system is being messaged?  What are you doing to invite deeper understanding, ownership and feedback from teachers on an ongoing basis?

Let me speak about a challenge.  One of the challenges about the performance evaluation is that it’s been part of negotiations for this whole time period.  And so talking with teachers has been a challenge around some of the details of this work because it could be considered direct dealing.  We haven’t reached an agreement on performance evaluation—despite the fact that I would personally say we agree, the union and the district, on by and large the majority of this work.  And it’s unfortunate that we can’t reach an agreement yesterday so we can truly engage all educators and being very clear about what’s happening and we can do it together, collaborate together.  What I’m concerned about mostly is this notion that this is all going to change because it’s all part of negotiations and something significant will be different.

As long as we continue to believe that, it’s hard to engage in serious conversation that this is actually happening.  One of my frustrations is that we have a lot of mutual interests with the Boston Teachers Union on this topic, we have a lot of agreement on this topic, and I wish that this wasn’t part of the mediation process because the Boston Teachers Union has been clear about the mediation process taking quite a long time.  In one of the bulletins, something to the degree of one to two years.  We can’t wait for that.  We can’t wait to have some serious conversations with teachers about this work for a year or two.  So it’s been a real impediment and real missed opportunity to engage with more teachers around this topic.

Any plans though, with those constraints, to still try and have meaningful conversations?  To have teachers understand and own what this process is about?

So we’ve done a number of Superintendent shares on this topic, where the superintendent is there to hear from teachers about performance evaluation and what they think is going well or not well and their hopes and desires.  We want to do large scale roll out of this work so we were hoping to host a number of sessions at the BTU where we drop in sessions where we can do some facilitated work groups around this topic, the rubric, understanding the rubric and the professional supports available.  We still hope to do that.  But it’s hard to formalize a clear plan when this is part of negotiations.  We have a lot of ideas of what we’d like to do, such as online surveys and opportunities to get feedback from educators but we’ve not been able to do that.

A Focus on Collaboration.

Let’s talk about the idea of collaboration as a way of doing our work in the Boston Public Schools. 

What is your understanding of what labor-management collaboration involves?  What does it look like?  What does it take to get there?

As I alluded to earlier, there’s this notion of interest based bargaining which essentially is this idea that we have common interest in this work.  We work together with the teachers union to come up with solutions and problem solve the issues that we identify and reach some mutual agreement.  I believe we’ve been successful with that.  I feel like the Boston Teachers Union leadership cares about performance evaluation and we’ve engaged in good, strong dialogue about this topic.  And I feel so good about what we did and what we accomplished that I thought we would have had something to give a clear message to all educators now.  And that we wouldn’t have to go to mediation on this topic, so I’m surprised, quite frankly, that we are.  I wish we could have continued that strong collaboration on this topic to reach the final determination to let everyone know that we’re working together.

So what does it look like?  I believe it looks exactly like we did where we had a small group of committed educators from the union and district work together to talk about common interests and problems and work together to solve them and work together to come up with something beneficial for all of us—we are one organization, the Boston Public Schools.  And I think we created something that would be beneficial for everyone in the Boston Public Schools.

Madison Park for instance… the work that was done by the educators at Madison Park to work together to think about how to make an innovation plan work well at their school is a great example—of working together, problem solving and having strong voices of educators at a school to serve students well.  I believe there are multiple examples of that across our system that are outside of contract negotiations where we work together to solve problems together.  I think we should do more of that.

We’re going to move forward with this exciting work, we’re going to do so in a responsible way and roll forward with this work with a strong a knowledge and consideration of what the Boston Teachers Union has as its interest.  We’re not going to ignore those interests.  I want to dispel that.  We left in a good faith bargaining effort to come to an agreement on performance evaluation and we’re not going to ignore it.  And we’ll continue to honor it, even if the BTU doesn’t want to honor it with us.

In your mind and your position, do you equate the Boston Teachers Union with Boston teachers?  Is that something you believe or is it an administrative or managerial approach?

My honest answer is I think about the Boston Teachers Union as a place in South Bay, the location I go to.  I view the Boston Teachers Union as the leadership of the Boston Teachers Union, the people at that building.  I view the membership of the Boston Teachers Union as all the educators, all the teachers in Boston.  But when I go out to a school to talk to teachers, I don’t believe I’m talking to the BTU; I believe I’m talking to teachers and I’m talking to the school community that I’m in.

Any words you’d like to end with?

Thanks for the Opportunity to Talk, Ross!

Thanks for the Opportunity to Talk, Ross!

Let me say this.  We’re excited about this work.  We feel like this is a real exciting opportunity for us to learn and to learn together and to come up with a clarity, a sense of community, a sense of teamwork as we work together on this performance evaluation work and alignment of professional development and how it looks at supporting school leaders and teachers and induction support.  We see this great alignment and synergy and we’re real excited about it.  And we feel great about the upcoming year.  It’s going to be exciting.  We think some glitches will pop up but we’re here to solve them and we’re dedicated to doing that.

So I thank you for the time on this.  We like to talk to people about this work and we think it’s important.  We may not always say the right or perfect things, but we’re honest.  We want to have conversations, we want to be transparent and we’re dedicated to supporting all educators in Boston.

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What do you think?  Do you think Ross gets it right?  What can we do to bring together our collective energies and will to do make these professional shifts our own?  As usual, visit the online forum at www.theteachingpulse.org to join the conversation.  And here’s to a final restorative few weeks of summer!

James Liou is a Peer Assistant in the Boston Public Schools.

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Here’s a well-written piece by Boston Public Schools teacher Adam Gray, currently the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and math teacher at Boston Latin School.  Topic?  Current pressures and changes challenging seniority as the sole basis of hiring, transfer and layoff decisions.  This is also a central point of conversation/negotiation/compromise represented with the recent Stand for Children and Massachusetts Teachers Association agreement in an attempt to bypass a more harmful ballot initiative later on this fall.

What do you think of the potential changes in our profession and schools related to these potential changes?  Do you think this is a good thing for teachers, for schools, for kids?  What questions remain?  Weigh in below.

Opinion | Adam Gray

Excellence in education

Putting performance over seniority is a win for teachers and students

By Adam Gray |

June 20, 2012

The Massachusetts Teachers Association and Stand for Children recently reached a compromise agreement on legislation that would put teacher performance over seniority in decisions about hiring, transfers, and layoffs. This is the right move for both students and teachers.

Historically, there were good reasons to base staffing decisions on seniority alone: gender equity, transparency, and freedom to voice disagreement, among them. Today, there are still reasons to take seniority into account. But times have changed. As teachers and union members, we must ask if the rules we’ve been accustomed to are continuing to serve our best interests and the interests of our students.

This issue is personal for me. Last spring, I was displaced from my school as a result of seniority-based, quality-blind staffing policies. A month later, I was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.

In 2006, when I began my teaching career at one of the lowest-performing schools in Massachusetts, I struggled. But over my first few years in the classroom, I found my rhythm — largely by observing more senior teachers who showed me that it was possible for all students to achieve. During my five years at Monument High School in South Boston, one of my proudest accomplishments was developing an honors math society aimed at transforming school culture by incentivizing strong academic performance and positive behavior. When we started Mu Alpha Theta, only 13 students met the eligibility requirements of maintaining a 3.0 GPA, strong attendance, and positive behavior. Over the course of three years, that number tripled.

With my displacement, I moved from the struggling school I’d grown to love to the highest-performing school in the district, where — as much as I continued to love my work and my students — I no longer felt that I was having the same impact. Former students have emailed me to ask why I left them “for the ‘good’ kids.” This is truly heart-wrenching.

Last spring, I was displaced from my school as a result of seniority-based, quality-blind staffing policies. A month later, I was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.

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My story is just one example. Many other teachers across the state can tell similar stories. I certainly wasn’t the most effective teacher displaced. Teachers with more than 10 years of experience — teachers I considered veterans and mentors — were similarly displaced because their years in the classroom were not enough. Certainly, several highly effective teachers were retained as a result of seniority, but many others had to move elsewhere.

We often talk about how quality-blind displacements are detrimental to student achievement. But they’re just as bad for teachers — both for morale and teacher retention. For me, the most important aspects of “working conditions” are the quality and commitment of the people I’m working with. At Monument, student attendance was abysmal — but teacher attendance was nearly as low, and the teachers who showed up every day were constantly picking up the slack for colleagues (both teachers and administrators) who were unwilling or unable to do their jobs. Surely in a profession that holds the futures of young people in its hands, we cannot afford to make any quality-blind decisions.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has stepped up to compromise with Stand for Children. Without this agreement, Stand for Children would have pushed forward a ballot initiative that would have brought more wide-sweeping changes to school staffing policies, and, I fear, much more divisiveness within the profession. While teachers have good reason to be wary of the proposed legislation, we need to take this opportunity to figure out how to tackle this issue — rather than closing ourselves off to the possibility of change.

Of course, incorporating teacher performance into staffing policies will only work if teachers feel that we are being evaluated fairly and supported by our school leaders. Administrators have a critical role to play as we move toward a new statewide teacher evaluation system. If passed, the bill would not take effect until 2016, allowing crucial time for teachers and administrators to get the new evaluation tool right.

As I conclude my tenure as Teacher of the Year, our profession is at a crossroads. As teachers, we can continue to allow changes to be made to us, or we can raise our voices and lead the change in ways that we know will benefit students, teachers, and the profession as a whole. This is an opportunity to work collaboratively to elevate the teaching profession and our unions so that we are protected, respected, and supported to do the job we love.

[Click here and scroll down to see and add comments to this post]

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Time for the debrief.  Were you there? What did you see? What arguments or conversation did you hear?  Did you have something you didn’t get the chance to say at the microphone?  Do you have any personal reflections that you’d like to share?

What are your thoughts for strengthening our union and doubling down on the efforts to make it more inclusive and accessible moving forward?

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Last period of the day at a small school within the South Boston educational complex; rainy, cool weather beyond the reinforced 1st floor windows.  Students diligently reviewing (contentedly, I was pleased to witness) a series of math problems from the district test that they had recently completed.  An opportunity this period to review those problems with nearby partners, get help from the teacher and refine their ability to eliminate answers based on informational clues each problem offered.

South Boston in 1974

And I couldn’t help but think of the history of this particular school, and flash back to the black and white imagery of the tightly settled row of Southie homes (in front of which I was then parked) lining the hill up to the school building, once witness to a particularly painful, and important, chapter of Bostonian–and American–history.  It’s an important historical location for certain, as captured in Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground and the Eyes on the Prize documentary series detailing the arc of the Civil Rights movement.  And in this particular location, the tension and violence associated with the desegregation, through what many described as ‘forced busing,’ of the Boston Public schools.

“Mister…” said one light-skinned and brightly-confident girl, wearing a maroon Harvard sweatshirt in the front of the class.  The teacher had just finished explaining to her a particular equation and its inverse, with the associated process linking the two neatly and concisely written on the board.  The teacher had been moving around the classroom, answering different student questions and synthesizing take away messages for a variety of the algebra concepts they would be coming across in the class final exam later that week.

“Mister…” she said again, repeated for effect, in a voice a few steps lower in tone.  An inviting, friendly and conspiratorial whisper.  Something was coming that wasn’t related to the math problem she was working on.

“I saw a dead bird,” she intoned.

“A dead bird?” the teacher repeated, with an admirable level of sincerity and interest.

“I saw it right next to a window with its hair all spiked and laying there!” she continued.  A determined pause in wait for an answer to a random recollection.

A beat or two passed, with the teacher maintaining a stoic look of a patient listener, ready to learn more about this poor, dead bird.

And the conversation went on for the next minute or two as students around the class continued working on their problems, with others selectively listening.  A small conversation, but a connecting and real one.

And I don’t know exactly quite why, but it was a total pleasure to witness—the tiniest example of classroom interaction that revealed a remarkable amount about a classroom environment that on this particular rainy afternoon, felt just right.

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BTUVotes Needs You!

Over the past few months, I’ve been happy to support the BTUVotes initiative, a grassroots movement of BTU members that has proposed to make voting more accessible—and to make the Boston Teachers Union more inclusive—by advocating for mail-in balloting.

By the time you read this column, it may also be likely that the most critical date of this initiative will have passed—the June 13th, BTU membership meeting.  At that meeting, those present will decide whether or not to approve the by-law change to affirm this effort.

I very much hope that we will collectively decide to do so.   And if you are reading this before June 13th, please do come to the membership meeting to help make it happen!

But in reflection, even in these last days of May—the busiest time of BTUVotes planning and organizing—some key benchmarks have already been met.  More than 1,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, psychologists and support staff have signed a petition supporting the initiative—most within the span of three weeks.  I think I can safely say that hundreds of hours have been collectively spent on the efforts to develop the initiative, in meetings at our homes and in strategic outreach.  BTUVotes members have collectively donated hundreds of dollars of their own money to pay for printing petition materials and flyers.  We have come across both severe obstacles as well as strong supporters among the BTU Executive Board and the BTU leadership.  Many of us have met from the first time, representing schools from across the city, and have organized around the common cause of strengthening our union.

I’ve also learned a lot from the experience so far.  I’ve been part of inspiring conversations, attended many afterschool-into-early evening planning meetings and received and sent more emails than reasonable to count.  I clumsily figured out the difference between a Facebook page and a Facebook group, and now know that I’m a stone’s throw away from a pretty great union printing shop.  Perhaps most importantly, I’ve gotten to know—or know better—a group of passionate, pro-union and dedicated fellow teachers.

And what is the central premise of this collective thoughtfulness, work and action?  It’s the idea that teacher voice matters.  Teacher voices matter.  And that we can, and must, do better in our own union to make our professional organization accessible to, and responsive to, ALL of us.

You might have already seen some of the shocking statistics.  In our last election, only 13% of BTU members voted—which translates into nearly 90% of our membership who did not or could not participate in this most basic, democratic action.  You might have talked to our BTU elected leadership about the continued lack of engagement and representation of a great many of our membership, particularly among younger members or individuals who have recently joined the BTU.  You might be attuned to the current political climate that has in many instances, blamed unions and teachers as the main obstacles towards the improvement of our public schools.

Something needs to be done about all of this; and from my perspective, BTUVotes is an initiative that does exactly that.

I’ll plan on writing an addendum to this column after the June 13th meeting on The Teaching Pulse website.  In the meanwhile though, in the spirit of highlighting the voices of teachers, I’d like to present a number of statements by a number of us that capture many thoughts and ideas about the issue.

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“I support BTUVotes because it is the right thing to do. There is no reason why–even if he or she doesn’t choose to vote–that the teacher who has childcare responsibilities or cares for a sick parent, one with medical issues or whose economic situation requires him or her to work a second job, the teacher who chooses to coach a spring sport, or one who works far from the union hall or who doesn’t have the luxury of owning a car and so on should not have the same ability and ease to vote as any another member. This is a moral issue. Voter equity is good for our union. Permanently removing impediments to voting is a good first step in helping more members become involved, invested, and feeling positive toward our union.”  Karen McCarthy- Brighton High School

“I also am strongly for a mail in ballot…and would love to hear folks’ rationale for opposing it…I’m unclear how this could be anything but positive. Voting is from 9-6…which means that everyone except retirees are already at work teaching, given our students’ start times of 7:30, 8:20, and 9:25…and even if we are lucky enough for all busses to dismiss on time…an “early” schoolteacher, para, or nurse would be out at 2pm at the earliest…then to drive over to the Union and potentially disrupt a family/child pick up schedule…nevermind those of us who work at late schools, where the earliest we could leave would be 3:40-3:45…that puts BTU members in the throng of rush-hour traffic. I honestly see this as a respect issue to the members…the BTU works so hard during negotiations to protect our work rights and time to collaborate and focus on students…shouldn’t they also support our rights to be a more active participant in selecting our representatives while also supporting our rights and needs to take care of our personal and family lives outside of the job?”  Jennifer Henderson DiSarcina- Elementary and K-8 Math Coach

Voting in BTU elections needs to be more inclusive.  Our union has the responsibility to remove impediments to voting.  It’s what a democratic union should do. A mail-in ballot is the way to go.” Garret Virchick – Brighton High School and BTU Executive Board member

“I support BTU Votes because it’s a step in the right direction. Many of the teachers in my school support the union, but don’t feel they really have a say in union activities and leadership. This is a fantastic opportunity to include their voices.” Sarah Liou- Boston Community Leadership Academy

“I support BTU Votes because our union will be stronger with greater participation from its membership. Removing barriers to participation and facilitating democracy must be a priority! Mail in balloting is the logical next step to strengthening our collective voice and ensuring that all educator voices are heard.”  Jessica Tang- Young Achievers K-8 and BTU Executive Board member

“I support BTU Votes as I believe creating greater access to voting is simply the right thing to do. This seems like a logical method of allowing more of the membership to give voice to the Union and its decisions. I honestly cannot fathom why anyone would think this is not a positive and, frankly practical step.”  Sharon Abraham- Brighton High School

“I support BTU Votes because when I was a first-year teacher, I didn’t have time to go to the union hall to vote. That set a bad precedent that could have never been set if I had been allowed to vote by mail. How many other new teachers have also set a precedent of not voting simply because they don’t have the time to go?”  Abe Lateiner- Tobin K-8

“I support BTUVotes because I want our union to move into the future as a strong and inclusive organization that recognizes that we must keep pace with changing times if we are to remain relevant.”  Erik Berg- Philbrick Elementary and BTU Executive Board member

“As co-lead teacher of the Boston Teachers Union School I know well the importance and power of teacher voice in decision making. The shared leadership model at our school provides a unique opportunity for teachers to fully participate in the work of creating excellent educational opportunities for the children and families we serve. Likewise, BTUVotes would provide our union with the opportunity for a fuller, more inclusive participation from a broader cross section of our membership. I fully support BTUVotes and ask you to do the same.”  Betsy Drinan- co-lead teacher, Boston Teachers Union School

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As usual, please visit the online forum at http://www.theteachingpulse.org/ for more content and further conversation.  And have a wonderful summer!

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As you may have heard, BTUVotes is an active, grassroots initiative that proposes to help the Boston Teachers Union become more inclusive and accessible to its members by having voting happen by mail-in ballot.  I have been happy to be a supporter of this initiative.  I’m also in the process of writing about the topic in my next Teaching Pulse column for the Boston Union Teacher newspaper.

In the meanwhile, a fellow BPS teacher recently suggested (and I completely agree) that there should be some kind of online forum for teachers to ask questions, get more information about the initiative, and otherwise get a chance to deeply engage with the ideas behind BTUVotes.

I present this post as the place to do just that.

Feel free to respond with any comment, question, idea, accolade or concern by adding a comment to this post (you will see directions to do so at the end of this post).  Once a few comments are up, you will see that there is a ‘nested comments’ function so you can respond to the original post or to another individual’s specific comment.  Also remember to check the box underneath your comment so that you receive notifications via email when others respond to it.  This is a helpful way of keeping the conversation as lively as possible.

Do be as direct as you are willing.  As the moderator of this independent website, I will maintain the responsibility for making sure that all comments are appropriate for public view and only filter content for inappropriate commentary or incomplete attribution (click here for a description of requested etiquette).  When you create a comment, please begin by introducing your name and the school where you currently teach.

If you are new to BTUVotes, you can find more information here:

Website:     https://sites.google.com/site/increasebtuinvolvement/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/BTUVotes/

Twitter:      www.twitter.com/btuvotes

Email:        BTUVotes@gmail.com

Thanks and looking forward to the conversation!

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Do you have an innovative idea or practice that you’d like to see implemented across the Boston Public Schools?  Is there a particular practice or approach that you collectively take at your school that you think can be ‘scaled up’ for the benefit of more school communities?

If so, definitely take a look at the Innovation Incubator competition that is being hosted by the Boston Leaders for the Future of Education.  The previous Incubator winner (Countdown to High School) garnered additional grant funding for its development and is now in active use in BPS.

Access the RFP here: 2012 Boston Innovation Incubator Request for Proposals

Here’s an email from one of the co-chairs of BLFE, Jonathan Sproul.

It’s getting close to the deadline (June 4th) for the Boston Leaders
for the Future of Education’s Innovation Incubator and I thought that
you and/or some of your colleagues, networks, friends, etc. might be
interested in applying to this year’s competition.  There is a $1,000
cash prize to the winner(s) and all proposals will be reviewed by a
panel of influential leaders in education, including Boston Public
Schools Superintendent Johnson, Boston Teacher Union President
Stutman, and MA Secretary of Education Reville.

If you are interested in applying and/or know someone that may be
interested, please review/share the attached RFP for the Innovation
Incubator competition details or visit the link:
http://www.youngleadersineducation.org/the-innovation-incubator-competition

If you have any questions about your proposal, please feel free to
contact me via email at jonathansproul@gmail.com or phone at
617.519.3106.

Regards,

Jonathan Sproul
Co-Chair, Boston Leaders for the Future of Education

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An introductory letter that Ron Thorpe, new President of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and I co-authored for the Council of Economic Education Survey of the States report recently got published.

Alright!

Guest Post | James Liou and Ronald Thorpe on Survey of the States

POSTED: April 23, 2012 | BY: lrasimas | TAGS: , , ,

James Liou, National Board Certified Teacher, Boston Public Schools

Ronald Thorpe, President & CEO, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

We want to commend the Council for Economic Education for its ongoing advocacy and work related to economic and financial literacy education in our nation’s schools. The Survey of the States report, coupled with concerted action and innovative partnership, could very well lead to practical avenues for meeting the needs of educators and their students across the country.

The Council’s work is especially important today. In our “flat” and technologically connected world, understanding economics and achieving financial literacy are key 21st century skills. But before we get into that, let’s take a quick look back to another time in our nation’s history when these issues were just as critical.

After the American Revolution—and even before the results were assured—the rag-tag collection of colonies, now united, confronted a threat that challenged the democratic ideals the colonists had fought for: what to do about the nation’s debt and what structures to institute in order to stabilize the economy and support the veins of national commerce. While historians can argue the points, it is pretty clear that Alexander Hamilton, with his extensive knowledge of financial systems, especially in England, provided critical leadership with his understanding of debt and advocacy for a central bank. Had his opponents—including Thomas Jefferson—had their way, it is likely that the new country may not have survived its crippling war debts and challenges to its federal legitimacy. So, while we identify an understanding of economics and financial literacy as “21st Century Skills,” they are ones that have asserted their importance since the founding of this country and will continue to do so.

The contemporary Occupy movement, one that seemingly began as a loosely organized but resonant economic and political outcry, both here and around the world, has a parallel to this country’s revolutionary history as well. At this time, to the British, the upstart colonists were little more than a pesky bunch that should be warily tolerated, or if necessary, ‘put in their place’. But economic and political crises, as they did in the late eighteenth century, tend to reverberate in ways that have further reaching impacts. They did then, and they continue to do so today.

Economics and financial stability will be central to the upcoming presidential election as everything—education, physical infrastructure, health care, security, energy development, environmental stewardship and goods and services of every kind—will be derailed or fast-tracked as dictated by the language and framework of our economic well-being.

This economic orientation alone should inform us about the importance of educating our students on the topics of economics and financial literacy in our nation’s schools.

There is no question that this additional pressure falls upon our schools when they too are experiencing significant shifts—from a heightened era of standards and accountability, to Common Core implementation, to the impending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. At a time when schools seem over-burdened and under-resourced, how can we possibly ask them to take on even more? But in this regard, education is no different from other professions. Doctors can’t sit back and say “enough already, we can’t take on anymore ideas about how to make people healthy,” nor can lawyers, accountants, and engineers think that way about the developments in their fields. Each profession must find ways—new, creative and sustainable ways—to keep on the road of continuous improvement.

To determine what some of the most accomplished teachers in America think, we conducted a survey of nearly five hundred National Board Certified Teachers in social studies and business education—among them elementary, middle and high school teachers from urban to rural settings. In response to our questions about the obstacles that teachers face with economic and financial literacy education, the most cited responses were: lack of time, lack of prioritization and lack of meaningful professional development. Among these teachers, 74% felt somewhat successful or less with integrating economic education in their social studies classes, and 82% felt similarly regarding the integration of financial literacy topics. A full two-thirds of these teachers cited moderate to limited access to quality curricular materials related to either topic.

Knowing the conditions that now exist is the first step toward making the kinds of changes the Council urges schools to make. But there is also reason to be hopeful that these gains can be made. A strong through line in the survey responses suggested that teachers strongly valued and were similarly committed to finding ways to increase student learning of and experiences with these topics.

At the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, we propose to build on these sentiments, particularly in the related content areas where we have standards and a certification process. NBPTS would be happy to partner with the Council for Economic Education. Perhaps more importantly, National Board Certified Teachers stand ready to help as well. By first identifying a cohort of innovative teachers, and then through a strategic offering of curricular resources, professional development and compensation, best practices of integrating these topics could then be disseminated and shared more widely to other teachers locally, and then nationally. Who better to lead the efforts of improving our schools than our nation’s most accomplished educators?

http://www.nbpts.org/about_us/news_media/web_feature_releases?ID=683

http://www.councilforeconed.org/2012/04/23/guest-post-james-liou-and-ronald-thorpe-on-survey-of-the-states/

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Teacher Voice Counts, So Let's Start the Conversations

The spring of 2012 is shaping up to be a pretty important season.  Contract negotiations have been intense, organization in response to the Stand for Children initiative is gearing up, and momentum around increasing membership participation and voice through a voting proposal will be building.

It’s a particularly meaningful and important time for us as teachers to get involved and support positive change in whatever way possible.  As the historian Howard Zinn famously suggested, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.  Depending on the metaphorical locomotive of discussion, it’s going to take individuals and groups acting in concert to either speed up or slow down these trains.  Or in some cases, to even lay some new tracks.

At the end of February, based on ongoing conversations with a number of teachers and friends, I introduced a companion Survey Tool through The Teaching Pulse website to amplify and build upon the theme of the Talk to Teachers campaign.  The idea is based on a simple, dual premise: 1) the voices of teachers matter and 2) there’s nothing more compelling in this day and age than data.

The steps to make this happen are also intended to very doable ones:  1) develop a survey around a particular topic or theme, 2) distribute the survey to the intended audience of teachers, 3) analyze and interpret the results and 4) present that information as needed to advocate for our students and our work in educating them.

For this column, I’d like to re-pose the question and propose possible topics for survey development:

What collective information would be useful to solicit from the teachers in our individual school or job settings?  How might that information be helpful in surfacing particular issues or opportunities to enhance and support our work in the classroom?  Or to gather information that would be helpful for our individual school, union or district leadership to know?  And ultimately respond to?

In other words, let’s continue to work on inviting and building upon the voices, experiences and ideas of teachers.  Some of us may be interested in getting involved with some of the broader, district-wide issues I raised at the beginning of this column.  Others may want to ‘activate’ teacher participation and leadership around themes of classroom instruction and figuring out ways to share best practices.  Yet others may want to focus on issues and opportunities specific to an individual school.

Here are a few examples of possible topics, along with sample statements that can be answered by the typical Likert scale of responses (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree).

Student Attendance Concerns.  As one teacher recently raised, ongoing concerns of low student attendance in her classes and her school overall have been making instruction extremely challenging.  Here are some statements that might comprise a survey to all the staff in her building to raise initial patterns while also providing some next possible steps in terms of discussion and/or sharing best practices.

  • Student attendance issues (ie: frequent absences and student tardiness) affect my ability to plan and teach students effectively.
  • I have developed (and would be willing to share) good strategies in my classroom that minimize the effect of absences or student tardiness.
  • I believe that a standardized and consistently applied attendance policy throughout the school would help me in my classroom.

Voting in the BTU.  Turnout and participation in the BTU’s biannual elections have been a concern and challenge for many teachers.  Here are some possible statements that could generate useful baseline information.

  • I vote regularly in the BTU elections.
  • I am generally satisfied with the diversity of opinions, experiences and positions represented by the candidates for BTU leadership positions
  • I think the current voting structure is an effective way of encouraging BTU members to vote
  • I would be more likely to vote in BTU elections if they were held at my individual school or through a mail-in ballot
  • I think that more teachers would participate in BTU elections and be involved if they knew more about the issues and had the opportunity to contribute.

Sharing Best Practices.  A number of past contributors and commenters have indicated strong interest in learning from each other and creating more pathways for teachers to share best practices—both within schools and between them.  Some possible statements are below.

  • The professional development offerings from the school district and those required in my school meet my needs.
  • I would like to see the BTU take an increased leadership role in the professional development of teachers
  • I would be willing to learn from and adapt new instructional strategies from other teachers
  • I have a best practice that relates to ____insert topic here____ that I would be willing to share
  • I would be willing to participate in a district-wide cohort of teachers to pilot and jointly refine a targeted, instructional practice

I hope these topics give a glimpse of what is possible.  Do visit the online forum at www.theteachingpulse.org if you are interested in further developing these or other surveys, and get in touch with me.  I’d be glad to help in any way that I can!

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